In December of 1861, representatives from the various presbyteries across the South met in Augusta, GA, for the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA). One of their first steps was adopting the constitution (i.e. confession, catechisms, government, etc.) of the PCUSA, from which they had just broken. They adopted these standards verbatim, only substituting “Confederate States” for “United States.” Afterwards a motion was made to appoint a committee of one pastor and one elder from each of the ten synods in attendance to draft an address to all the churches of the world announcing their existence as a denomination and defending their actions. The great Dr. James Henley Thornwell was chosen to head the committee, and the address which the committee produced was unanimously adopted by the General Assembly as a whole. The address takes up seventeen pages in the book in which I found it, and is thus too long to reproduce in full here. However, I will summarize the content and provide full quotes as necessary, with special attention given to things deemed politically incorrect by today’s standards.
After introducing their denomination and assuring others of their continued fidelity to orthodox doctrine, they go to great lengths to justify the need for their separation from the northern Presbyterian church. They say that they do not wish to be “guilty of schism” or “to rend the body of Christ,” but that the present political realities foisted such a course upon them. They imagine that in a meeting of the northern and southern presbyteries at present, “they would denounce each other, on the one hand, as tyrants and oppressors, and on the other hand, as traitors and rebels.” Rather than make such a mockery of the peace of the church for a nominal, meaningless unity, peaceful separation is unfortunately preferable. The following paragraph appears during this line of discussion:
We cannot condemn a man, in one breath, as unfaithful to the most solemn earthly interests — his country and race — and commend him in the next as a loyal and faithful servant of his God. If we distrust his patriotism, our confidence is apt to be very measured in his piety. The old adage will hold here as in other things, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus [false in one thing, false in everything].
Notice that a man’s duty to “his country and race” is referenced offhandedly in passing as “the most solemn earthly interests,” such that neglect in that area gives grounds to doubt a man’s piety. This is quite the opposite view of the modern church, in which the more a man denies even having such earthly interests, the more pious he is viewed. 1 Timothy 5:8 speaks to which view is the correct one.
The committee goes on to argue that the forming of a separate national denomination in the new country does not injure the unity of Christ’s Church:
The Church Catholic is one in Christ, but it is not necessarily one visible, all-absorbing organization upon the earth. There is no schism where there is no breach of charity. Churches may be perfectly at one in every principle of faith and order, and yet geographically distinct, and mutually independent. As the unity of the human race is not disturbed by its division into countries and nations, so the unity of the spiritual seed of Christ is neither broken nor impaired by separation and division into various Church constitutions. Accordingly, in the Protestant countries, Church organizations have followed national lines.
Notice that Thornwell and the committee consider the division of mankind along national lines to be a normal and healthy state of affairs in no way conflicting with Christianity. After this, the committee briefly parts ways with me a bit. They take the position that since the church and state are ordained by God to separate spheres of jurisdiction, the church should never speak on political issues; in contrast, I maintain that the church has the duty to speak to general principles in the political sphere even while maintaining its separate jurisdiction.1 The committee states that the church has no authority to speak on secession or slavery (as a political institution) for or against, only to acknowledge the reality of it. The committee then identifies the difficulties in maintaining an international denomination, especially one spanning countries at war with each other. Further added to this was mention of the northern church’s insistence on inserting the political issue of slavery into everything; should slavery have been denounced as a sin in Scripture, the northern church would have been in the right, yet Scripture not only fails to condemn slavery, but openly condones and codifies it.
We venture to assert that if men had drawn their conclusions upon [slavery] only from the Bible, it would no more have entered into any human head to denounce slavery as a sin, than to denounce monarchy, aristocracy, or poverty. . . . [The Abolitionists] have gone [to the Bible] determined to find a particular result, and the consequence is, that they leave with having made, instead of having interpreted, Scripture.
The committee goes on to formulate a biblical argument for slavery, even listing all the godly men in Scripture who owned slaves. It was pleasant to observe the great similarity between their argument and the one found on F&H. Like the anti-racists of our day, the abolitionist opponents of the southern Presbyterians, when unable to produce any biblical backing for their position, simply retreated to mouthing platitudes about slavery being against the law of love and the Golden Rule. The committee answers this argument.
The law of love [Golden Rule] is simply the inculcation of universal society. The interpretation which makes it repudiate slavery would make it equally repudiate all social, civil, and political inequalities. Its meaning is, not that we should conform ourselves to the arbitrary expectations of others, but that we should render unto them precisely the same measure which, if we were in their circumstances, it would be reasonable and just in us to demand at their hands. It condemns slavery, therefore, only upon the supposition that slavery is a sinful relation — that is, he who extracts the prohibition of slavery from the Golden Rule, begs the very point in dispute.
One of the greatest ironies on the Day of Judgment will be the ocean of black souls saved by Southern slaveowners compared to the pitiful puddle saved by the heretical leadership of the modern church who condemn them as evil.
We feel that the souls of our slaves are a solemn trust, and we shall strive to present them faultless and complete before the presence of God. Indeed, as we contemplate their condition in the Southern States, and contrast it with that of their fathers before them, and that of their brethren in the present day in their native land, we cannot but accept it as a gracious Providence that they have brought in such numbers to our shores, and redeemed from the bondage of barbarism and sin. Slavery to them has certainly been overruled for the greatest good. It has been a link in the wondrous chain of Providence, through which many sons and daughters have been made heirs of the heavenly inheritance.
The committee rightly understood that the fact that men from all races have souls does not translate into absolute equality. Keep in mind that these are men who rubbed elbows with blacks every day and had far more experience dealing with racial diversity than the modern pastors living in 98% white suburbs who condemn them as ignorant bigots.
We cannot forbear to say, however, that the general operation of the [slavery] system is kindly and benevolent; it is a real and effective discipline, and without it, we are profoundly persuaded that the African race in the midst of us can never be elevated in the scale of being. As long as that race, in its comparative degradation, co-exists, side by side, with the white, bondage is its normal condition.
The committee then goes straight for the jugular and attacks the very idea of universal human rights. There are the basic minimum of God-given rights outlined in the Ten Commandments, yet anything beyond that depends entirely on what rights a people’s ancestors have secured for them, and what rights they are capable of exercising responsibly.
As to the endless declamation about human rights, we have only to say that human rights are not fixed, but a fluctuating quantity. Their sum is not the same in any two nations on the globe. The rights of Englishmen are one thing, the rights of the Frenchmen another. There is a minimum without which a man cannot be responsible; there is a maximum which expresses the highest degree of civilization and of Christian culture. The education of the species consists in its ascent along this line. As you go up, the number of rights increases, but the number of individuals who possess them diminishes. As you come down the line, rights are diminished, but the individuals are multiplied. . . . How, when it is said that slavery is inconsistent with human rights, we crave to understand what point in this line is the slave conceived to occupy. There are, no doubt, many rights which belong to other men — to Englishmen, to Frenchmen, to his master, for example — which are denied to him. But is he fit to possess them? Has God qualified him to meet the responsibilities which their possession necessarily implies? His place in the scale is determined by his competency to fulfill its duties. There are other rights which he certainly possesses, without which he could neither be human nor accountable. Before slavery can be charged with doing him injustice, it must be shown that the minimum which falls to his lot at the bottom of the line is out of proportion to his capacity and culture — a thing which can never be done by abstract speculation. The truth is, the education of the human race for liberty and virtue, is a vast Providential scheme, and God assigns to every man, by a wise and holy decree, the precise place he is to occupy in the great moral school of humanity. The scholars are distributed into classes, according to their competency and progress. For God is in history.
The committee states that their position on slavery and their appeals to Christians outside of the CSA are based neither on emotion nor on their own authority, but rather upon God’s Word and logic.
We have tried our case by the Word of God; and though protesting against its authority to judge in a question concerning the duty of the Church, we have not refused to appear at the tribunal of reason.
They finish the address by stating that despite the time spent discussing it, they do not wish to make slavery or any political issue like secession the basis for “judging of Christian character.” But rather,
We offer you the right hand of fellowship. It is for you to accept it or reject it. We have done our duty. We can do no more. Truth is more precious than union, and if you cast us out as sinners, the breach of charity is not with us, as long as we walk according to the light of the written word.
The ends which we propose to accomplish as a Church are the same as those which are proposed by every other Church. To proclaim God’s truth as a witness to the nations; to gather his elect from the four corners of the earth, and through the Word, Ministries, and Ordinances to train them for eternal life, is the great business of His people.
The entire address is well worth the read, and if anyone knows where it can be found online, please post a link in the comments. The thing I found most encouraging about the address is the striking similarities between the arguments and positions of the PCCSA, Thornwell, and the committee and us at Faith and Heritage. For example, their argument that the interpretation which makes the Bible anti-slavery also “would make it equally repudiate all social, civil, and political inequalities” is identical to the one we’ve repeatedly made about the modernist misinterpretation of Galatians 3:28. This only reaffirms that we hold the true continuity with historical Christianity.
- This has been fleshed out a bit more here in the “Radical Two-Kingdoms vs Theonomy” section of my response to Michael Horton. ↩